J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Sarah Bishop: finding the context

Yesterday’s posting about Sarah Bishop, the “Hermitess of West Mountain,” prompted some good questions from Boston 1775 readers. I’d noted that the earliest account of her life was published while Bishop was still living in a cave (pictured at right) near the Connecticut-New York border, and it says nothing about her suffering from British attacks during the Revolutionary War. Instead, it says, “she always discovered an unusual antipathy to men.” Thirty years after her death, however, being “cruelly treated by a British officer” or privateers became the standard explanation for Bishop’s reclusive lifestyle.

slskenyon wrote:

I think there are other possible reasons why this "contemporary" account should be "read" within its own time. I think you will be hard-pressed to find any account anywhere--even in private diary entries--of someone having experienced a rape of any kind.
And Alfred F . Young wrote in an email:
Long Island was overrun with British soldiers who had an established high level of rapes. She was (by tradition) a beautiful woman (with high expectations of landing a good catch). If she was raped and especially if she bore a child, she would have been disgraced. . . . She could have been traumatized and fled far away from the British and men (North Salem would do) and spent her life in a cave.
Al’s book Masquerade, about Deborah Sampson Gannett, discusses cases of young women using men’s clothes to flee such disgrace.

I assayed the context of the 1804 description of Bishop by looking up the word “rape” in American newspapers that year. And the first thing that search revealed was that “rape” is also a crop, part of the word “grape,” and close enough to a lot of other words and phrases (like “rope” and “escape”) to confuse the OCR program that created the digital database.

So I sampled the 900+ results—checking about 20-25% of the entries. Most were false positives, but several did refer to the violent crime.
  • On 3 Jan, The Farmer’s Cabinet of Middlebury, Vermont, reported the arrest of Samuel Baker Bump for having “committed a rape on the body of a female child, of the age of four or five years, and daughter of Amos Coggswell of...Coventry.”
  • The next day, the Portsmouth Weekly Wanderer described a father in Machias, Maine, setting fire to the jail to kill a young man who had “attempted rape on a young lady of 15 years of age.”
  • The New York Daily Advertiser for 14 April described the conviction of a Kentuckian named Richard Tomlinson “for a rape, committed on his own niece.” That account was later picked up in the New Hampshire Gazette.
  • In July, several Massachusetts newspapers reported on the capture of “the villain who committed the rape and murder on the body of Miss Sally Tolbot, of Canton.”
  • The 23 Aug Otsego Herald ran what looks like a bad joke from Dublin about a “ravished fair one” and “a rape.” On 15 Nov, the same paper ran a story from North Carolina about the conviction of a man “for attempting to commit a rape on the wife of Nathaniel Morgan.”
  • Finally, by looking up “ravish” I found that on 1 May The Hive of Northampton reported about the arraignment of soldier Micah Welch for “an attempt to ravish a female child under the age of nine years.”
Newspaper printers of 1804 don’t appear to have shied away from the word “rape” or mentions of that crime. There are some possible signs of printers shielding rape victims from the public eye: in the only account that names the victim, that woman is dead. However, four other articles offer enough detail for people to identify the victim (e.g., the four- or five-year-old daughter of Amos Coggswell of Coventry).

Legal authorities sometimes trod delicately by casting some rapes as attempted rapes. I’ve read that prosecutors or juries could decide on this charge because of the difficulty of proving the harsher crime and/or a wish to avoid punishing the rapist with death. Perhaps printers used the same sidestep to shield a victim from stigma. But clearly some of these newspapers said that rapes had occurred. And at least in these published accounts (we don’t know what didn’t make the newspapers), the newspapers reflect sympathy rather than disgrace for the victim.

In fact, printers seem to have been more squeamish about the word “rape” in 1839, the date of the account of Sarah Bishop that said she was “cruelly used.” Even though the U.S. had more and longer newspapers by then, the same digital database kicks out only 110 appearances of the word “rape” that year (only a few having anything to do with the crime).

So it looks like the 1804 writer could have reported that Sarah Bishop had been raped during the Revolutionary War, or hinted at some crime or mistreatment as the 1839 writer delicately did. Indeed, with many Americans in 1804 still remembering the years of warfare around New York, such an account would have cast Bishop as the victim of a shared national enemy. But the contemporary writer didn’t do so. Instead, he or she connected Bishop’s odd behavior to antipathies she had exhibited from an early age.

Perhaps the later writer had more information about Bishop, and felt comfortable hinting at it long after her death. But I think it’s also possible that writer was offering an explanation that made more sense in the context of 1839.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

Even at this remove, it’s possible to identify a daughter of Amos Cogswell of Coventry, Connecticut, born in 1800 and thus about four years old in 1804. According to Familysearch.org, her name was Serviah and she lived until 1840.